How can I build my portfolio when my client won’t buy good work?

Early in your career, you should be chasing opportunity. Go where you can produce your best work. A lot of it. Cycle great work into your portfolio and expunge the crap—that’s your simple goal. And early in your career, it’s critical.

Thus, one of the most frustrating (and dangerous) situations to find yourself in is to a client that refuses, for whatever reason, to buy good work (and here let’s define “good work” as work you’d want in your portfolio).

So what do you do?

First of all, don’t put work in your portfolio just because it’s “real” (i.e. just because the client bought and ran it). If it’s not better than your student spec work, it shouldn’t go in your book, period. You get no points for “real” bad work.

What about my good ideas that were pitched to and killed by the client? Can I put those on my site? The specifics of the situation, the agency-client relationship and legalities of contracts, etc. all can determine the right answer to that question. Some would say yes, just password protect it. Some would say ask your creative director. Some would say just do it and ask forgiveness if needed. I’m going to save that tangent for another time.

What does that leave you with? You still have some options. Here are four that have worked for me in the past:

1) Do work on the side.

Find a client that you can do good work for. Go outside the agency if you need to (just avoid any direct conflicts with your agency clients ). You have a friend who owns a bar? See if you can throw some work her way. Or the local aquarium. Or a startup that you happen to like. It doesn’t have to be a Fortune 500 company. Go to a conference and introduce yourself to some people. Be open about what you’re trying to do. You’re looking to do great work that you can put in your portfolio. Would they be open to letting you take a crack at a project for them?

When I was in San Francisco, you couldn’t throw a smartphone without hitting someone who knew someone involved in a startup. A group of people at my agency found a wine startup that ended up being a dream project. Although these guys were never an official agency client, the agency supported the work (they wanted to see us do cool side projects too).

 

Obviously, if the person knows and trusts you, you’re more likely to get a yes. But I’ve found that if you’re honest about your intentions, people are happy to let you pitch some ideas to them. They’re not obligated to buy or run the work. Whether or not you do the work for pay is another can of worms I won’t get into here, but remember that your main reason for doing this work is the work, not the money. And if you are willing to do it for no pay…

 

2) Find a pro bono client.

When I take on a project, I want at least one of these:

  • Great creative.
  • Get paid.
  • Work with friends/have fun.
  • Good cause.

Ideally I get all four. I usually have to settle for three, sometimes two. If none of those boxes are checked, I’m-a-gonna pass. For pro bono, you eliminate #2. So find a cause you believe in. Try to involve people who will make it fun. And be clear with the client that you want to have good work in the end, not just brochures. You might do a brochure, but only if you can also do something you’ll be proud to put in your book.

I worked for a music education pro-bono client for years. I’d say we had #3 and #4, often #1. But we also had something else, which was an opportunity to experiment and learn. We shot a number of documentary pieces that put my partner and me behind the camera, working the boom, editing and building stories out of interviews and b-roll. It was something we didn’t have much experience with when we started, but after six mini-docs, we’d actually learned a few things. And that’s not nothing.

And years ago Greg had an idea for the National Parks, so he reached out to them to see if he could do some free work. That campaign ended up in Communication Arts.

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3) Solve a real-world problem.

Forget clients altogether. Just pick something that sucks and solve it. My partner and I once had a planner who would call and talk forever. We were bullshitting one day and had the idea of an app that lets you select from a library of sound effects to give you excuses for ending the call. Like knock at the door, pre-flight announcement, baby crying, etc. Neither of us had ever made an app before, so we decided to figure out how to do it. We called a developer we knew, worked out a deal around profit-splitting and got to work. Again, we learned a lot in the process and, in the end, we had something we could show off. We even sold a few of them.

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4) Do a passion or self-promo piece.

What do you love? Do a project around that passion. Love books? Redesign covers for your favorites. Create a children’s book. One former student used to build big type installations. Who cares if it’s not “ads?” It’s probably more interesting. Create a website for your grandmother. As a last resort, create something about you.

The point is, make something. And make it good. You have no client for something like this, so you have no excuse. If I’m looking at a portfolio from someone who has only a couple okay client pieces but a bunch of really interesting, well-crafted side projects, I figure that they’ll be able to do that for a client if given the opportunity.

But if I’m looking at a portfolio that has a couple of okay client pieces and a handful of excuses, no thanks. Clients may be a reason you can’t do great work on a particular brand—believe me, I’ve had my share. But bad clients are not a reason you can’t fill your portfolio with great work.

 

David Oakley’s Why Is Your Name Upside Down?

We have a list of books we recommend over there —-> on the right side of the page. Lots of stuff that might inspire you or make you a better creative. Here’s one that might do both, and will get you excited to be in an industry as fun as ours. Why Is Your Name Upside Down? Stories from a Life in Advertising by David Oakley
Oakley is the president and creative director at BooneOakley, a small independent advertising agency in Charlotte, NC. It’s a really good shop with nice, talented folks. Full disclosure here—I’ve met David and many of the people there, so I’m probably a little biased. Even so, I laughed much harder at this book than I thought I would. After 15 years in the business, sometimes reading books about the industry feels like, well, work. This one feels more like just grabbing a beer with a dude who tells really good stories.
BooneOakley opened with a ballsy, attention-grabbing stunt. During the 2000 presidential race, they ran a billboard that said “Gore 2000.” But what it showed was a photo of George W. Bush. Calls from the media started immediately. All the big names wanted to know who had screwed the pooch so badly. CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX. Oakley even received a call from the Vice Chairman of the Republican Party. Only after a few nervous days of incredible publicity did they reveal the punch line: the board was for 123hire.com, with the copy: “Today’s job opening: proofreader.” A really simple prank that turned a local billboard into national media coverage.
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That is the M.O. of Oakley—he likes to take risks, make his clients famous and have fun doing it. Some of the stories here are how some of BooneOakley’s best, most over-the-top ideas came to be. Some are stories from the trenches of running a small agency in a small market. And some are personal stories from David, how he got into the business, how he met his wife (who also works with him), a few other random but always entertaining stories from his past. If you were to cut a trailer for a movie version of this book, you’d see a giant muffin fall on a car, a professional golfer tee off on a biscuit, a Silence of the Lambs basement moment as Oakley tries to buy a ping pong table for the office on the cheap, a client fired via tweet (don’t we all wish sometimes), a condom on a dog, a pole dancer, a live earthworm eaten by a human, some terrible golf, Celine Dion, Roseanne Cash, a kidney stone passed and what is certainly the only sex doll thrown from a rooftop during a new business pitch. And that would just be the 30-second cut of the trailer.
You don’t have to be in advertising to enjoy these stories. But if you are, you might actually learn something while you’re laughing your butt off. There’s a method to Oakley’s madness, and he drops some important lessons along the way. Even his craziest stories have morals to them. Well, most of them do. And you’ll be treated to some delightful writing, such as this: “Our moods were swinging like a pair of donkey balls.” (Surprising, visual, simple—everything a good simile requires.)
The stories are so random and improbable that you know they’re true. Advertising is random and improbable. I’ve had many moments in my career where I’ve stopped to look around and wondered, “How the hell did I get here?” I could totally relate. And what comes through more than anything is that Oakley is a guy who loves what he does. He loves the people around him, and he’s built an agency, a body of work and now a book that shows that advertising can be a blast. It should be, if you’re doing it right. And he shows that, despite the rumors, there are some really good people in this industry.

The Third Shoe

Yesterday I was having lunch with Tracy Urquhart, our awesome creative operations manager, and I was talking about being disappointed when creatives take my direction exactly and bring nothing else to the table.

Tracy said that one of her first jobs was selling shoes for Nine West. When a customer asked to see a shoe in a certain size, she would bring that shoe in the size the customer wanted. She’d also bring a second pair that was similar, maybe a slightly different model or different brand. Then she’d bring a third pair. Something else completely. Something surprising. Something the customer wasn’t asking for at all. But maybe–based on a hunch, something they said, maybe based on their style–something the customer would really love.

This is a perfect metaphor for what we should always be doing. Whether you’re addressing feedback from a creative director or client, bring what was asked for. But don’t stop there. Is there another way to do it? Maybe the direction was to emphasize a point more in the voiceover of a spot, but there’s a better way to solve that same issue visually. What other ways can you solve that specific problem?

But don’t stop there either. What else is there? How can you completely turn the problem on its head? What can you do that’s radical and surprising? What is your gut telling you? It may be completely wrong. That’s fine. You’ve already done what’s asked. But there’s a chance that third shoe just might just be more spectacular, more right than anything.

An Interview with Andrew LeVasseur, Head of Experience Design at VCU Brandcenter

At the VCU Brandcenter’s annual recruiter session, there’s a small group of tinkerers and builders and mad scientists who sit in the same room as art directors and copywriters, but kind of off to the side. Instead of ads, their tables are littered with drones and robots, hacked toys and games, tablets with app prototypes. Tangible things, things they’ve actually built. They are a new breed, a new creature in the industry. Until now, they’ve been called Creative Technologists.

I love talking to them about their work. I have a whole different set of questions than when I talk with the art directors and copywriters. Things like “What the hell is this?” “How’s it work?” “How did you make it?” “What’s this button do?” “Have you patented it?” And, usually in the back of my mind, “Wow, is this even advertising?”

This track—Creative Technology—has just been renamed Experience Design. We caught up with Andrew LeVasseur, the head of the Creative Technology/Experience Design track to get his take on VCU Brandcenter’s approach to technology and user experience, the future of the program and the reason for the name change. 

 

What’s your background? 
I have worked for top agencies like Razorfish (Seattle) and The Martin Agency (Richmond).  I have also launched and helped grow multiple start-up companies. My brand credits include Barclays, Best Buy, Capella University, Capitol One, Harrahs Entertainment, Hawaiian Airlines, Holland America, Microsoft, Michelin – BFGoodrich, Verizon FiOS, Weight Watchers, among others.
My focus areas include brand strategy, user experience design, information architecture, interaction design, software, information systems and process design, technology and new media, applied research and analytics.

What’s your role at the Brandcenter? 
I joined the VCU Brandcenter as an adjunct in 2009 where I played a large role in establishing the Creative Technology track (a precursor to the Experience Design track). As head of the Experience Design track, I help shape the vision, curriculum and course content.  As a professor, I teach multiple courses focused on strategy, design and technology.

Why the name change from Creative Technology to Experience Design? 
The Creative Technology track has successfully been in operation for 6 years and the name “Creative Technology” has served a specific purpose for the times we were in.  We’re renaming the track to better align with the direction of the industry, the career opportunities for our students, and to reflect more specifically the titles and roles our graduates are assuming in business. 
So what does an Experience Design student do? 
Experience Design students concept, design, prototype and build ‘experiences’ that push the envelope of what is technologically possible.

While at the VCU Brandcenter, Experience Design Students will:

  • ·       Study new and emerging user participation platforms like digital, social, mobile, and experiential (IoT). 
  • ·       Identify new and imaginative ways for brands to engage with users across platforms. 
  • ·       Design ads, interfaces, apps, wearables, robots, flying machines…things yet to be imagined.
  • ·       Balance strategic, tactical and technical project demands to bring ideas to life in both form and function.

Here is the Fall 2015 Course List:

Semester 1: Business of Branding, Creative Thinking, User Experience Design, Physical Computing 1

Semester 2: Strategy & Design, User Participation Platforms, Visual Storytelling

Semester 3: Creating Gravitational Pull, Experimentation, Physical Computing 2

Semester 4: Innovation, Persuasion, Indivituation

 

What kind of people are you looking for in Experience Design? 
We accept students from very diverse backgrounds and believe that the more variety in experience, capabilities and skills make for richer collaborative design.  That said, we want students who have a passion for business, design and technology, and who are: 
Culturally-Curious/Tech-Forward:  Are you fascinated by the world around you and the impact of
technology and new media on culture and people?
Creative Problem Solvers: Do you see challenges as design opportunities and have the capacity to
find creative design solutions? 
Interdisciplinary: Do you possess a combination of business, design, and technology
experience?  But want to develop a deep specialization and practice in experience design. 
Productive Team Members:  Do you welcome new ideas and play well with others? 
Thinkers + Makers: Are you equally comfortable developing concept, design, and prototypes?  
Strategic, Tactical and Technical: Can you address the strategic, tactical and technical challenges
that come with any complex design project?
If this sounds like you, we’re still accepting applications for Fall 2015
How about the students graduating. Can you describe their skills?

Breadth and Depth. You’ve heard it before, but the industry requires talent that gets the big picture, but also brings something unique and differentiated to the creative exercise.  We focus on developing talent that has strong foundation in concept and craft.  Dependent on their unique ambition and interests, our students also develop an area of specialization while at the VCU Brandcenter. For some XDs, it is user-centered design and related UX disciplines (UI, IA, IxD, Front end-development).  While others are passionate about concepting, designing, building and trialing new experiences that push the envelope of what is technologically possible.  While other students are focused on the production of dynamic multimedia content for new environments.  There are so many emerging opportunities out there, that we leave it up to our students to shape their own views and invent their own visions of the future.   

See the portfolios of current Experience Design students and the current student showcase.

 

Where are some of your graduates working today? 
Since we started, we have placed upwards of 100 CT/XDsOur graduates are in high demand and have gone on to work in the top agencies, client-side, and in successful start-up companies.  They work for global brands, on award-winning work, and some have been recognized as leaders in our industryOur graduates operate under multiple titles in the industry (and this is a good thing).   

 

Any predictions on where this track is going? 
This track is uniquely positioned within our curriculum to be looking upward and outward to what is new and next. What are the trends impacting our industry, where might we experience disruption, how does that point to new opportunities for brands, and what capabilities and skills will we need to develop to lead the creative industry?  That is why we will need to constantly evolve, question our assumptions, and expand our base of knowledge and ability.  It is also the same reason we are hard to define.  That might not be a bad thing after all.
In the spirit of change, I’d love to hear from you. alevasseur@vcu.edu

 

 

The VCU Brandcenter Master’s program, part of VCU’s School of Business, has been recognized by Creativity Magazine, the 4A’s, Ad Age and BusinessWeek as a top graduate program in advertising, marketing, digital media, and design + business.  

The Brandcenter is known within the advertising industry for its intensity, and the students who graduate from the program earn valuable real life experience to develop brands on a global scale. 

The VCU Brandcenter is more than a portfolio school. Students earn a Master’s of Science in business that complements their portfolio of work. This portfolio could contain ad campaigns. It will definitely contain strategically thought out and creatively conceived solutions to business problems. Brandcenter students concentrate in one of the five tracks. They study within their given track, as well as collaborate with all tracks on team projects that culminate in presentations to their faculty, peers and often real world clients.

 

 

The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry

I read a handful of books on creative thinking and management every year. Some are more helpful than others. The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry is one I found full of good advice from both perspectives. In a nutshell, Henry’s focus is on practices that help us make the most of our creative resources (time and energy). It also has some good advice about managing a creative environment. 
My review is below, along with some random notes (I post reviews of everything I read on my personal blog). 
Additionally, Henry runs The Accidental Creative podcast. And he has a new book out, Die Empty. I haven’t read that book. If anyone has, let me know what you think of it. The title’s a little cheesy, but he usually has smart stuff to say. 

Anyone who works in a creative industry knows the pressure that comes with having to solve creative problems against a deadline. Or being required to generate ideas every day within the constraints of budget, timing, politics and the chaos of the modern work environment. This is a book on applying rigor to the creative process. This is not meant to confine creativity—Henry cautions that structure should not be confused with formula. Formula is a prescriptive process. Structure is a scaffolding within which surprising creative solutions can still flourish. By understanding the rhythms of creativity, its inputs, its enemies and various tricks of the trade, one can learn to coax ideas out reliably. As Henry says, “people who succeed are often those who do the little, everyday things that other won’t.”
Henry identifies elements of the process for creative individuals as well creative teams, some of the barriers that can hinder creativity and gives some practical tips for working more productively as a creative person. I’ll include somewhat random notes and my favorite slide-worthy quotes about creativity below, but in general what I love about this book is that it articulates process problems I experience all the time, both at work and with my own projects, both as a creative and a creative manager. Identifying the barriers is often more helpful than the solutions because the barriers sometimes become so ingrained in the way we work that they become invisible. Shining a light on them, naming them and calling them out as problems is critical.
We all want a greater sense of purpose in our lives and in our work. We want to feel that our efforts contribute to a greater good, and that our personal goals align with our professional ambition. That all our motivations are in sync. What this book provides is a pragmatic and sometimes inspiration outline to better align our individual goals with our professional realities (and vice versa). It’s a handbook for becoming a more productive, more reliable, happier creative person.
NOTES:
Key elements of the creative process
Focus: Know your true objective. Articulate it. Be aligned with team members on what this is and constantly check back against it to maintain alignment.
Relationships: Identify and build the relationships that positively empower your process. My buddy Jon, when I asked him what advice he’d give a younger version of himself, called this one out. In a nutshell, he said that you only have so much time and energy—focus on the relationships that push you to grow and make you stretch.
Energy: Establish practices around energy management. You have to maintain a healthy, sustainable lifestyle in order to maintain a sustainable creative output.
“It’s all too easy to waste the energy we need for important creative objectives on unproductive or unfocused behaviors.” (e.g. constantly answering email) [p116] The opportunity cost of sitting in unproductive meetings or answering emails, dealing with politics and other BS has a huge opportunity cost. Which, smartly, Henry defines with this quote: “You can have anything you want, but you can’t have everything you want.” [p128]
“You are defined by what you say no to.” [p130]
Stimuli: Beauty in, beauty out. Austin Kleon says creative people are a mixtape of everything they consume. Be purposeful with what you put in. Henry suggests you have a defined “study plan” and figure out a way to keep what your study provokes—the ideas you come up with—organized. A notebook, note cards, whatever—but return to those notes from time to time. Study can be inspiration for ideas, but not if it’s quickly forgotten.
Hours: The tension between possibilities and pragmatics is the source of most of the burnout, frustration, and conflict within teams. “…it’s difficult to stay excited about the work when we feel that practical limitations will ultimately prevent us from really doing something we believe to be truly great.” [p23] Henry dedicates a chapter to the various types of tensions that can cause strife within a team, but they are all variations of possibilities vs pragmatics.
Assassins of Creativity (I love that name)
Dissonance/Unclear Objectives: Everyone not being on the same page with the “What” and, more importantly, the “Why?” The common purpose for existing as a team is…? If everyone can’t answer that, you got problems. If there are differing objectives, the boat will go in circles, maybe sink. The creative process, without proper management, will naturally trend toward entropy. In the generative portion of the creative process, this can be normal. But to be successful, the creative process also requires decisive pruning (convergent thinking). This is where a clear objective is critical—it is the guide to what is pruned away and what is left to flourish and given more resources. Lack of a clear goal invites chaos.
Unnecessary Complexity: Maybe Einstein said it best: “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Included in this section is a point that I think Henry glosses over too quickly, which is that complexity can lead to obfuscation of how an individual contribute to the overall mission of the organization. Daniel Pink, in his TED Talk, lists this understanding as one of the three key motivators in the workplace.
My favorite illustration of this point is a story. In 1962, JFK was touring NASA’s space center. He saw a janitor mopping the hallway and broke away from his group and walked over to the janitor. As the story goes, he said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What do you do here?” The janitor replied, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon, Mr. President.” Whether or not that story is true, it’s a great illustration of an ideal. Every member of the team must know how their efforts contribute to the project, and their goals must be in line with the goals of the project and, ideally, the organization. It’s not only good for cohesion, it’s good for motivation.
Fear: Fear can take any number of forms, all of which cause hesitation or, worse, paralysis in the creative process. The creative process, specifically the generative part of it, relies on momentum and energy. Fear drags its big heavy feet in the mud. Henry describes the forms that fear can take, and he makes the point that while fear of failure certainly exists, fear of success can be even more stifling, especially to an individual. Comfort is the enemy of success, “the single biggest factor that causes creative to shrink back from opportunity.” [riCardo Crespo, p56]
“Fear of success is often more destructive than fear of failure because it’s masked in the guise of wisdom.” [p59]
Comparison: This is, I think, a specific manifestation of fear rooted in our insecurity that our final product won’t be good enough. We compare it to our past work, the expectations placed on us by our co-workers, benevolent (or malevolent) overlords, or to our industry heroes. We don’t see our work measuring up, and it plants a deadly seed of doubt. This can be crippling, particularly early in the process, when a germ of an idea will never live up to a fully realized, polished and celebrated project. There may be a time to compare our work to others, but early in the creative process is not that time.
“It’s great to stand on the shoulders of giants, but don’t let the giants sit on your shoulders.”
-Stephen Nachmanovitch.
Said less poetically, “there is a form of oppression that emerges when we allow the work of our influences or competitors to drive our creating in an unhealthy way.” [p62]
Miscellanea
Creative Rhythm: In order for us to create, we need to get into the zone, the right headspace, whatever you want to call it. We need to be able to focus. This is the most important element in our work—time to think—yet the modern work environment conspires to steal this time from us. Make sure you structure time into your day to actually think about things. Put it on the calendar if you need to. Good ideas rarely come about when ticking off menial tasks and answering email.
The Ping is technology and culture colliding. It is the constant sensation that an email has come through, a need to check in on social media, etc. It prevents us from truly being present in any task or situation. When I’m writing, I’ve anecdotally experienced that it takes me 15-20 minutes to get to anything good. So if I’m only spending 10 contiguous minutes on any task, I’m denying myself the ability to do my best work. Linda Scott calls the way we live and work “continuous partial attention.” Again, structure time into the day to do these things, or time when menial tasks and Facebook updates are off limits.
Assumptions: “We develop systems to replicate our past successes—or to prevent replicating our past failures—but all we really do is fossilize these processes and create rigidity in our life.” [p72] We make assumptions that we reinforce time and again, each time deeper ingraining those assumptions and making it more difficult to think in new ways. What are those assumptions? Stepping back and literally your assumptions can be one one way to break through creatively.
The Big Three. One suggestion Henry makes to help focus is to define “The Big Three.” Creative people tend to have many irons in the fire. It allows them to self-medicate with distraction. His suggestion is to pick three. Identify the three top priority projects (not tasks, projects) and focus on those. Dedicate time, bandwidth and any other resources to accomplishing those three projects. In addition to resource management, this sends a signal to your brain that these projects are the ones that are important. It relieves your mind of trying to solve 15 things at once. This is true in a collaborative environment as well.“One of the greatest gifts any creative leader can give to their team is to regularly refine focus by utilizing the practice of establishing the Big 3.” [p86]
Relationships. Henry dedicates a section to the importance of building and maintaining important, inspirational relationships. Meaningful connections, rather than maintaining relationships of necessity. Be structured with it—create a group that meets regularly to share ideas and provide motivation.
Unnecessary Creation. I engage in this quite a bit, personally. Take time to make things that don’t need to be made, that won’t be judged, that are important for no other reason than they are personally fulfilling. Creating work for ourselves, under no pressure from anyone else (or ourselves), with no expectations, is a great way to explore ideas and a pressure release valve—the urge to create has been temporarily relieved. And the feeling of “getting lost” in your work is, from my experience, therapeutic. It can be meditative, can lead to total immersion, what some refer to as “in the flow.”
Quotables:
“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
– Jack London
“An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.”
–Edward de Bono
“Few things in life are less efficient than a group of people trying to write a sentence.”                                                                      -Scott Adams (Dilbert)
“Creativity is a natural extension of our energy.”
–Earl Nightingale
At the beginning of every season, Vince Lombardi would give a talk to his players. He would start that pep talk by holding the ball in the air and saying to the professional football players around him: “Gentlemen, this is a football!”

"What One Thing?" with Jon Lancaric

This is a part of an ongoing series that asks, “If you could go back to when you were just starting out in this business and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?” 




















I’m biased. Jon Lancaric is a good friend of mine. He also happens to be an incredibly talented writer, director and creative director. He’s put in time at DDB, Mother NY, Chiat, Media Arts Lab, Google, Apple and more. He has won multiple Cannes Lions, among other awards. This was his answer.

Surround yourself with people who inspire you to be brave, take chances, and who challenge you to push your creativity beyond what it looks, feels and sounds like today. Relationships take time and energy. Spend them on the good ones, not fretting about the bad ones.